What is the age limit to buy alcohol?

The legal age limit to buy alcohol is 18.

If you’re under the legal drinking age

If you are under 18, it is illegal:

  • for someone to sell you alcohol
  • to buy or try to buy alcohol
  • to drink alcohol in a public place
  • for an adult to buy alcohol on your behalf

In England and Wales, children under 16 years of age are allowed into pubs, as long as they are accompanied by an adult. However, children under 16 cannot drink or be bought alcohol in a bar, pub or off-licence (where alcohol must be taken away from the premises and drunk somewhere else).

Young people aged 16 and 17 can drink beer, cider or wine with a meal at a table in a bar or restaurant, as long as they’re accompanied by someone aged 18 or over.

It is against the law to give alcohol to children under five years of age (unless it’s given by a doctor for health reasons).

There are slightly different rules in different parts of the UK. Read more about the alcohol laws in Northern Ireland and Scotland.

Chief Medical Officer’s guidance on young people and alcohol

The Chief Medical Officer (CMO) has published advice about alcohol for young people and their parents, and recommended that:

  • an alcohol-free childhood is the healthiest and best option
  • children should not drink alcohol until they are at least 15 years of age, if at all
  • if children do drink alcohol, it should always be with the guidance of a parent or carer, in a supervised environment

For more information, see Should my child drink alcohol?

Why is the limit 18?

Drinking alcohol is more harmful for children and young people under 18 than for adults. This is because young people under 18 are physically and emotionally less able to cope with the effects of drinking alcohol. They’re also less mature, so are more likely to behave in a risky or unacceptable way after drinking alcohol. Some of the risks to young people who drink too much alcohol are listed below.

  • Drinking at an early age can cause serious health problems. Evidence shows that drinking too much alcohol can increase the risk of organ damage in the developing body.
  • Drinking heavily under the age of 14 can change the brain structure, which can harm brain development in young people as well as affecting motivation, reasoning, interpersonal interactions and other brain functions.
  • Drinking too much alcohol is strongly linked to many other problems, for example, unprotected sex, teenage pregnancy, failing at school and taking illegal drugs.
  • Alcohol can contribute to some young people's anti-social behaviour

Read more about why alcohol is bad for you and alcohol and sex.

Read the answers to more questions about alcohol and smoking.

Further information:

Page last reviewed: 17/03/2014

Next review due: 16/03/2016